On May 24th, 1976, after finding a surprising quality in some American wine that made its way into his Parisian cave, Steven Spurrier decided to host a Californian wine tasting to commemorate the bicentennial of the American Revolution. At the time, France was hailed as the wine continent of the world, but something in the Californian wine Spurrier tasted that day sparked a curiosity- and he wondered if he could get other people interested too. After a year of traveling back and forth between California’s top wineries, Spurrier settled on six exceptional Cabernet Sauvignons and six more Chardonnays before assembling a team of nine of France’s best tasters. Then, mere weeks away from the impending event, Spurrier had an idea that would change history.
It occurred to Spurrier that the only way to make the judges take the tasting seriously would be to taste them alongside the top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, turning the event into a blind-tasting competition. Much to everybody’s surprise (none more than the esteemed judges themselves), without the obstruction of prejudice, the Californian wine came out on top in both the red and the white category. Of course, there was uproar, with one judge even demanding her notes back and deeming the entire tasting ‘rigged’. Before long, newspapers all over the world were reporting what was being coined ‘The Judgement of Paris’– the day Californian wine beat the French at their own game.
Before that fateful tasting in 1976, California was all but ignored when it came to wines of esteem. Despite its controversy, one thing Spurrier’s tasting event did achieve was the firm positioning of California on the wine map. Now, there are so many producers churning out bottle after bottle, it can be hard to know where to start. Beau Monde Traveller hones the microscope in on Sonoma County– a great destination for travelers hoping to pay a visit to some of the winemakers still giving France a run for their money.
Sonoma County, located on the Western edge of the Pacific Coast, has been attracting all kinds of viticulturalists since the dawn of time due to a bountiful potential for produce. Sonoma’s rich soils and diverse micro-climates are what originally drew Spanish missionaries here in the 1800s, where they planted Sonoma’s very first vineyards. The wine produced was predominantly for the purpose of communion, however it wasn’t long before rumors of the delicious wine being bottled in Sonoma made its way to the commercial market. The reputation that Sonoma boasts for wine today is thanks to the winemakers that pioneer its unique terroirs, give valuable insight into soil-vine interplay and work hard to grow fruit of the highest quality.
Though they may not have been featured in Spurrier’s legendary tasting, there are a few Californian producers within sleepy Sonoma Country that would have well held their own against France’s very best. What better way, then, to see California’s western coast than through the eyes of the vine. As Spurrier’s ‘Judgement of Paris’ revealed, Californian Chardonnay is second to none (literally), and Sonoma is expanding that reputation as far West as it goes. For a taste of Sonoma’s greatest Chardonnays right at the root, it’s worth a trip to Rocheioli Winery in the Russian River Valley.
Their tasting room on site overlooks their renowned Chardonnay vineyards and, while the winery offers a cheese pairing experience, we can’t think of a better pairing that that vino and that view. If its possible to get sick of Chardonnay this delicious, just up the road is where wine nerds will find some of Sonoma’s most iconic Pinot Noir growing in the vineyards of Williams Seyem. Any visits to the vineyard are conducted by an estate host who is happy to share stories of its rich history alongside some delicious samples of the winery’s highly sought-after cuvees.
If there’s only time to visit a few wineries while in Sonoma, you’ll want to put Arnot Roberts on your shortlist. Founded by childhood friends, Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts, Arnot Roberts began with a single barrel of homemade wine fermenting in a basement. Eager to move quickly forward from their humble beginnings, Meyers and Roberts began focusing in on the unique terroirs right under their noses. They sought out vineyards across California and discovered long-forgotten parcels that they knew could produce honest and expressive wines. Today, they are well established as winemakers leading the charge in Californian wine its reputation within the world of wine. They produce cuvees with both Californian grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and also experiment with varieties less well known in the region, such as Ribolla Gialla, Falanghina and Trousseau. Tasting appointments are available at their winery in Healdsburg, where guests can taste a selection of five wines from their exciting production range.
St. Francis Winery
Joe Martin is the grower behind historic winery St Francis Winery– and the man responsible for first bringing Merlot to Sonoma County. Falling in love with Sonoma’s charm back in 1971, he planted twenty-two acres of Chardonnay and sixty acres of Merlot. Partnering with winemaker Tom Mackay, the pair took the Merlot growing on their vines on a journey of elevation, carving out its place as a premium, stand-alone varietal. Loyal devotees of Sonoma County, however, it wasn’t long before the pair began exploring the region’s more traditional grapes. Before long, St. Francis’ vineyards were planted with everything from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, and the winery that is today a legacy began taking shape.
History lovers will rejoice at the chance to explore a winery at the center of Sonoma’s wine history. What’s more, St. Francis are offering the chance to explore their collection of wines alongside a seasonal pairing menu. Nationally acclaimed Peter Janiak highlights the very best of Sonoma County’s culinary traditions within a five-course experience, carefully assembled within the estate’s dining room overlooking some incredible vineyard views.
After a somewhat transformative trip exploring Europe behind the wheel of a VW van, John Sweazey brought an ignited passion for wine back to his hometown of Sonoma with him. He built the Anaba estate in ode to the hospitality he experienced amongst vignerons within the wine community in France. To visit Anaba today is to take part in a dream that formed a legacy decades ago. The winery works alongside some of Sonoma’s best grape growers across the county, believing in the power of participating in the community that wine creates.
The winery produces a selection of impressive Pinot Noir and Chardonnay cuvees, alongside a Rhone blend, encompassing three classic Rhone varieties in honour of Anaba’s founder and the journey that led him to wine. Anaba offer guests the opportunity to taste a selection of wine of their choice alongside some carefully crafted antipasti- the best way to experience their legacy of hospitality first-hand.
The Bartholomew Estate
Delving even further into the depths of Sonoma’s wine history, it wouldn’t be long before you came across The Bartholomew Estate. The estate was bought in the twentieth century for Antonia Bartholomew as a birthday gift from her husband Frank. Upon learning that it was once the site of Sonoma’s first vineyard, they set about restoring its vines and preserving its treasured history. Legend has it that Bartholomew Estate’s first ‘vintages’ were produced in 1923, from a small, walled vineyard planted to produce sacramental wine. Under Bartholomew’s ownership, the winery began to steer away from wine of sacramental type, and moved further towards the production of premium wines.
Their historic contribution to the Californian wine industry is still at the heart of the vineyards today. Today, almost 190 years after the planting of their very first vineyards, The Bartholomew Estate invites guests to experience the history first-hand, alongside a flight of exceptional wines. For those after something a little different to pair with their Zinfandel, take part in Bartholomew Estate’s immersive forest bathing. The experience begins with a Japanese meditative experience, connecting each participant to the land where the vines grow. Bartholomew Estate believes forest bathing to be the fastest way to connect to nature- and the best way to enhance the wine.
Francis Ford Coppola Winery
Francis Ford Coppola is perhaps best known as a six-time Academy Award-winning director of legendary films such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Not satisfied with conquering one world-renowned industry however, in 1975, Francis Ford Coppola purchased a major portion of Inglenook Winery in Napa Valley with the purpose of restoring it back to its original status. Coppola and his wife Eleanor got a taste for winemaking, and in 2010 the pair opened a new wine estate in their own name, complete with tasting rooms, a museum and revered restaurant. Francis’s inspiration for the estate came from the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the amusement park that sparked a whole legacy of modern amusement parks around the world.
The estate was imagined into reality on the image of these theme parks, with the idea in mind that there would be something for the whole family at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. On-site restaurant Rustic is where guests can share in Francis’ experiences from around the world. This was a personal project closely overseen by Francis himself, who shares a very personal selection of recipes inspired by the people and places he has fallen in love with around the world. While the menu features some very impressive dishes such as a Classic Fiorentina steak for two, its simple comforts like Pizza Luigino that give this place its warmth.
Where to Stay in Sonoma
Sonoma offers a wide selection of fine resorts throughout the expansive county. Many are based in the heart of wine country while others are further afield. Some exceptional options include the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa and near the rugged Pacific Coast, the Inn at the Tides in Bodega Bay. Here are a few more options to consider for a fine stay in California’s wine country.
A pebble toss away from Arnot Roberts’ iconic winery is Hotel Healdsburg, aptly named and located a little further into Healdsburg’s charming center. The hotel claims that their philosophy of rest and repose is evident within their minimalistic interiors- but the 60-foot outdoor swimming pool and hot tub certainly don’t hinder their endeavor either. Dry Creek Kitchen is Hotel Healdsburg’s formal dining room, with Chef Charlie Palmer framing his signature dishes around produce found exclusively from nearby farms.
The wine list is an impressive, twenty-eight-page bible, with highlights including Peter Michael’s legendary ‘Les Pavots’ (a perfumed, elegant blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot) and Radio-Coteau’s ‘Harrison Grade’ (a Syrah that powerfully expresses Sonoma Coasts fruits). Hotel Healdsburg guests are also invited to bring along any of their own wine corkage-free- as long as it was produced in Sonoma County, of course.
Premium luxury meet pastoral charm at MacArthur Place, a hotel and spa conviently situated just a short walk from Sonoma Plaza. Amongst its 43 rooms are some pretty inviting suites, complete with a stand alone tub, and private balcony and a real-life fireplace. For anyone who’s ever dreamt of whiling away the hours, sitting by the fire, glass of Sonoma Zinfandel in hand- MacArthur Place is for you.
Culinary delights await at Layla, the hotel’s on-site restaurant, offering mouth-watering Mediterranean menus that develop with the changing seasons- however the real treat lies beyond the restaurant doors. ‘The Porch’ is the hotel’s all-dal coffeehouse and market, offering artisanal coffee, fresh local produce and oodles of Sonoma charm. Not to bang on about whiling away the hours, but porch-side armchair… freshly ground coffee…. Not a care in the world… need we say more?
If still looking to continue down a road of Californian wine discovery long after the county’s wineries close their cellars, rest assured there’s still somewhere where the doors are propped open late into the night. Sitting at the heart of the Healdsburg’s hospitality renaissance is Maison Healdsburg, a wine bar and bottle shop with some well-versed wine nerds fuelling the engine. The mission here is to challenge any existing California wine stereotypes by showcasing a range of wines demonstrating varied terroirs, grapes and producers from across the coastline. While California remains at the helm, the founders of the bar plan on incorporating classical, old world regions like Burgundy and Champagne into the menu, even hinting that some Spurrier-style, face-off tasting flights may be on the cards. Night owls will be happy to hear that the bar boasts an alcohol licence until 2 am, meaning there’s every chance here to get as close to the bottom of Californian wine as possible- or at least the bottom of the bottle.
In the years that followed ‘The Judgement of Paris’, sceptics claimed that the hype wouldn’t last, that Californian wine wouldn’t age like French wine, the winemakers couldn’t continue to evolve their insights and eventually Californian wine would disappear back to where it came from. Decades later, however, Californian wine is only making bigger and better bounds, its winemakers pioneering relationships between grape and terroir and creating delicious, expressive and often even age-worthy wine. There’s no denying, Californian wine is going nowhere. Perhaps it’s time to get to the root of the vine.
Article Written by Grace Laughlin